Greta Friedman’s famous kiss, the power of context and our evolving norms

A sailor in dark blue and a woman in white, kissing. Times Square, where New Yorkers gathered to hear whether the news was true. World War II is over. Celebration. The figures locked in embrace, his eyes closed, her swooning. V-J Day in NYC.

The image is so famous, you can probably picture it just from the description.

But context is everything.

From the photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt, we know that there were servicemen running through those streets, and at least one in particular kissing women at random.

George Mendonsa, the man thought to be the sailor in Eisenstaedt’s picture (there are disputed claims) had come out of the movie theater with his fiancee, and yet, when he heard the news, he, too, grabbed a stranger and threw her back into a kiss. He’d had a few drinks.

And we have the story from the woman herself, Greta Friedman, who died last week and maintained to the end that the mysterious picture was of her: “It wasn’t my choice to be kissed,” she told the Veterans History Project. “I felt that he was very strong. He was just holding me tight.” The sailor said nothing to her, she said. “It was an act of silence.”

Context matters

Look at the picture again — his left arm encircling her neck, his hand gripping her side. She’s being kissed, but not holding the kisser. If he stopped devouring her, she would fall.

In context, the scene appears less like one of unbridled joy: at best, an unwanted kiss, at worst an assault.

This is the kind of argument that some on the right would call “political correctness” run amok. Questioning a sacred American totem is the same sin perpetrated by Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback protesting systemic racism by not standing for the national anthem.

It’s a line of thinking not far from the debate over safe spaces and re-naming of university buildings that some on the left also have decried. Not only is a particular American totem not worth our veneration, goes the argument, but also our veneration of it is actively harming Americans today.

Indeed, the revised look at this iconic photo comes from a similar place as those other perceived gomorrahs: a feminist blogger writing in 2012 is often identified as the major origin of the reappraisal, some years after Friedman’s comments about the picture.

Friedman herself did not seem to have considered the encounter an assault, according to her son. Maybe you, too, see nothing untoward in “The Kiss.” You might say it was an unrivaled moment. It was a different time.

But it’s undeniable that times have changed and similar behavior is no longer considered acceptable. Push notifications have replaced physically going to Times Square to get the news, and the NYPD no longer allows drunken men to embrace and kiss random, unwilling strangers in public, no matter the occasion.

Revising our way to a better society

What our clarified understanding of the picture and protests by NFL players and college students have in common are the impulse to update societal norms.

Whether you think activists are right or wrong, their unifying impulse is a pushtoward greater inclusion.

Kaepernick says America still needs to do a better job with equal treatment of its African-American citizens. The college students asking for university buildings to be renamed argue that some students feel unwanted, denying them the same comforts and stability that their peers have always enjoyed.

A modern reading of Eisenstaedt’s photograph puts some shades of gray into its uncomplicated patriotism. Noting the complications means acknowledging that women have not been free from harrassment, especially in public spaces. It urges us to be less boorish, more fair. Moments of intense happiness don’t need to be celebrated at someone’s expense.

These are norms to make America great for everyone the way it used to be great for a few.

Eisenstaedt’s photograph is an optical illusion that shows both America’s past and its potential future.

Neither are perfect. They’ll need continued revision.